Getting the Word Out: Reviews: Kirkus Indie

A little over a year and a half ago, a writer I respect posted a piece about promotion and publicity. In that blog, this person pretty much said that a writer who spent time promoting a book rather than writing the next one was wasting her time.  Now I think that’s not exactly what this person meant because not only is promotion part of the business, the generally accepted wisdom is that word of mouth sells books.  But word of mouth doesn’t begin in a vacuum.  Word of mouth happens because one person read a book and told someone else or wrote a blog about it . . . you get the idea.  In fact, by writing that blog, that author who was telling you that promotion isn’t worth your time . . . was doing self-promotion.

Think about it.  Blogging is self-promotion.  That’s what selfies are.  Advertising you is what the Internet is, in part, all about.  Yes, it’s a place to go for information, but for better or worse, the Internet is one big billboard.  It is a huge communal bulletin board, with a gazillion different fliers all vying for your attention. 

Furthermore, the Internet is not free.  You only think it is because you’re not feeding quarters into a meter.  The cost is invisible.  But every second you spend blogging or Facebooking or Tweeting is time you’re not spending on that book or story. 

Nevertheless, a writer who hopes to earn a living at this has to be willing to do some self-promotion.  What I think this author meant was not that all self-promotion is bad, but that it–like every other activity that takes you away from writing–is something you have to both limit and use wisely.  You must pick and choose amongst many different promotional venues and decide what’s worth your time and what isn’t.  

Further, promoting the heck out of one book–particularly if that’s the only book you’ve written–isn’t a good investment of your time.  You are much better off doing some minimal promotion and then writing the second, third, fourth book.   Always be willing to apply a self-correction: is what you’ll do for promotion a better use of your time than writing? 

Because you will pay for promotion one way or other.  We all do, whether with our time, or a fee to a review service, or donations to book auctions or blogs or giveaways; or all of the above.  Time is not free.  So the key is to figure out the most bang for your time–or your buck.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been focused on ways of getting the word out. Now I’m only traditionally published at this point, but IMHO, most of what I’ve said about blogs and guests posts applies to indie published folks as well: specifically, that guest posts and blog tours for the sake of guest posts and blog tours are, by and large, not worth your time.  Blogs are best thought of and judged by genre magazine standards.  Agreeing to a guest post may be worth your time if it’s the right venue that reaches the right audience.   To my mind, blogs that review your books are much more worthwhile than ones that ask for a guest post–and that nicely segues into what I wanted to start talking about today; what I think is one of the best ways of getting that word of mouth going: reviews. 

Okay, I saw you cringe.  Come on, admit it.  Even though you told your husband you wouldn’t read those Amazon reviews, you did, didn’t you?  You got a little bent about those two-star Goodreads reviews.  I know you did, so now this little pearl is specifically for you, that gal who can’t stop searching for reviews; who thinks about drinking antifreeze after a blogger or reviewer dissed her book. 

Honey, repeat after me: reviews are nothing more than private opinion made public. 

Got that?  I know whereof I speak, too, because I used to do book reviews for various film journals—and I didn’t even paid for it; I did it because it was a way of getting my name out in film academia when I first got started.  (I did the same thing when I first started out in forensic psychiatry, too; I saw reviewing books as a way of staying abreast of the field and getting my name out.  Simple as that.  See?  Self-promotion, albeit via a different venue.) 

So I also know what it’s like to promise to review a book—and then find you absolutely hate it.  I mean, you really hate it.  But you still have to write something because you promised you would.  (For the record, I only reneged on that promise once . . . when I just couldn’t abide the book.  I just couldn’t, but I couldn’t find it in my soul to savage it either.)  Most of the time, I was kind and tried to find something nice to say, not the least of which because my name was on the piece.  I sometimes wonder what would’ve happened if those reviews had been anonymous, though. 

In the end, whatever I put on paper was nothing more than my personal opinion, and that’s all it ever was.  That’s how seriously anyone should ever have taken it, too: Ilsa who? 

So this is a very important point to remember because you have no idea why anyone agrees to be a freelance reviewer.  I don’t know any, but I do know that freelancers get paid (although the pay’s not great; $50 for a Kirkus review; $25 for PW).  I’ll bet that freelance reviewers may do so with an eye toward self-promotion of their byline, or as something that beefs up their creds.  But you always have to take reviews–whether they’re in big-name pubs or on blogs–with a grain of salt.  (Unless, that is, you are Joe Konrath and have learned not to care.  I’m not quite at that stage yet; when my editor sends a meh or scathing review along–why, why?–I can get down.  But I am getting better at shaking off the bad reviews.  I keep reminding myself: my editor bought the book; someone other than me believes in this book; people are working hard to make my book succeed . . . and most importantly, I’m already working on the next book.)  You can’t let a bad review destroy you, make you think you can’t write, want to find the sharpest pencil and gouge your eyes out . . . No, no, remember the mantra, grasshopper: a review is someone’s private opinion made public.  Period.   

Having said that . . . why are reviews good?  Simple: it means someone (presumably—and that’s a huge presumption) took the time to read your book. (Having reviewed books, I can tell you: when the writing sucks, you tend to skim.  It’s either that, or take your tonsils out with a fork and through your nose.)  A review means someone is broadcasting that opinion, and if word of mouth is what generates sales, that’s gold.  You can’t get word of mouth started if no one reads your book.  So getting your book reviewed is a step in the right direction because no one has time to read every single bloody book.  A review from a source that, say, a bookseller respects may steer her to a book she’d otherwise overlook.  So reviews are important in terms of their potential reach. 

Further, if a review’s good, that means you’ve got content to put on your website or the cover blurb.  Will someone’s glowing blurb make the average reader pick up a book?  Probably not, but—again—a good review and blurb from, say, PW or Library Journal is one way that librarians and booksellers decide on what to stock or buy.  Librarian-friends of mine, who might not know if I’ve got another book coming out, routinely congratulate me if I’ve gotten a nice review (and offer to go out for a martini if the review’s less than glowing).  So reviews matter.  People with the power to order your book–librarians, booksellers, Amazon customers, B&N customers, readers on Goodreads, folks on LibraryThing–pay attention to reviews.   

One caveat, though: just because your book’s traditionally published—if it is—that’s no guarantee you’ll get a review.  Not every single book of mine’s been reviewed.  Being traditionally published only means you’ve got a better shot at one is all, unless you choose to pay for a review.  

Now, when I began researching this, I’d first intended to focus on how you might get your book reviewed in the four major and more traditional venues—PW, Kirkus, Booklist, and Library Journal/School Library Journal—before moving on to other venues, some fee-for-service and some not.  Turns out that for one of them—Kirkus—it’s really easy to do; for PW, not so much.  But this is a huge topic, and I realized pretty quickly that there’s no way I can cover all that in one blog (not, and keep to my word/time limit; remember: every moment I’m doing this, I’m not baking a cake, petting a cat, working on my next book).  So I figured it might be best to focus on just one venue at a time, primarily because there’s a lot of information out there to assimilate.  

So, today,  just for kicks . . . let’s start with Kirkus.   

I know, I know: you’re rolling your eyes because we all know that Kirkus has this rep for being snarky, cantankerous, a little self-righteous.  Interestingly, the few librarians I know don’t take their cues from Kirkus at all which, considering that librarians and booksellers are the magazine’s target audience . . . is a little disheartening.  Having been the subject of reviews that have been, by turns, snarky, dismissive, flat-out wrong (like . . . I’m sorry . . . did you even read the book?), and rapturous, I have mixed feelings to say the least.  Sometimes I’ve thought that they must put their reviewers in small rooms and then sleep-deprive the hell out of them . . . but only after starving them, stringing them up by their thumbs, and blasting acid rock 24/7.   I’ve had editors say, “Well, you know, it’s Kirkus” and then tell me to close my eyes.  

And yet, despite all this—or maybe because of it—getting a Kirkus star is something you feel good about (one writer suggested that it was “coveted,” but I wouldn’t go that far).  Getting a review that suggests you’re halfway competent isn’t bad either.  Having Kirkus say something relatively nice is like having the most popular girl in school suddenly remember your name.

Founded in 1933, Kirkus built its reputation on both anonymity (no bylines for its reviewers) and independence (i.e., no ads).  Frankly, I wonder if the anonymity accounts for some of the snark and I-beat-my-dog-and-enjoy-it tone; I’m thinking of this in relationship to my own experiences as a reviewer: if there’s no blowback . . .  Out of the more than 290,000 books published in the US, Kirkus reviews a relatively tiny number (about 5,000-7,000 traditionally published; 3,000 self-published).  A bi-weekly publication, its print circulation—in terms of subscribers—was never huge and is still relatively small: only 5,000 or so (and that’s up by about 2,000 from two years ago; PW’s reach is five times that).  In 2009, in fact, Kirkus was set to close—something that didn’t necessarily upset that many people (see here and here)—until it was bought by the guy who owns the Indiana Pacers.  At the time that it looked to be defunct, one guy went public with what reviewing for Kirkus was like:

“Frankly, I never thought the reviews were over-the-top difficult, but I did find them far too stylistically uniform. Indeed, what the outside world may not realize — and in the end, it made no real difference to the end of the story — is that the style guide for Kirkus was almost Soviet in the way it, well, bureaucratized the English language; conforming one’s writing to the style felt like a ghoulish Orwellian nightmare of do’s, don’ts and how-dare-yous. That the Kirkus audience largely had devolved into librarians and library-lovers I have no doubt: the magic of the perfect Kirkus piece was not to treat English like playtime in a jungle-gym but rather a slow, steady, uneventful drive. If reading a Kirkus review was a bout of the maddening or the deadly dull, imagine having to write them.”

Regardless, Kirkus is still around; they have a nice website; some people must still be reading their reviews and making decisions accordingly.  So, is it worth your time, as an indie published person, to get them to review your book? 

Well, surprise: you could as early as 2004 when they launched a service called Kirkus Discoveries which has since been rebranded into Kirkus Indie (under the larger rubric of other Author Services).  For a price—$425 for standard service; $575 for express service—Kirkus promises to deliver a 250-350 word review, which you then have the option of having go public on their website or disappearing altogether.  If you choose to go ahead and publish the review, there’s also a chance that the review might be selected for their print magazine at no additional charge.

You can also elect to have Kirkus bump up your exposure—again, for a price—through two other venues: a personalized, fee-for-service Kirkus marketing campaign or, for an additional $299, Kirkus’s Pro Connect where, in essence, you purchase a page all about you and your work (as in this representative example).  Kirkus also suggests that Pro Connect may put you and your work in front of folks like publisher and film people who otherwise wouldn’t know you exist. 

Like I said, all my books are traditionally published, so I can’t directly comment on whether it’s worth it to spend money for this kind of review.  Not surprisingly, Kirkus disagrees and features authors who found the service helpful.  But do any kind of cursory web search, read through a couple forums and discussion threads about people’s personal experiences, and you find a certain uniformity to the criticisms (and there are a lot of them).  Most boil down to a few essentials: reviews that are little more than summary recaps of the plot; reviews that are overly harsh; reviews that focus on only a very small portion of the book (and so suggest that the reviewer didn’t bother reading the whole thing—which is what Leonard Jacobs suggested in his piece about reviewing for Kirkus above).  In fact, it’s well worth your time to read how one writer got his money back after it was painfully clear the reviewer had not fulfilled his end of the bargain: i.e., to read the entire book.  Notice, too, that this is what Kirkus explicitly promises upfront: “. . . our editor will assign your project to a qualified reviewer who will read the complete book . . .” (italics mine).

Gives you pause, doesn’t it?  Make you wonder why any legit review site would feel compelled to make that promise?  I wonder if that language/promise has always been there. 

Now, remember, I already said we all pay for reviews, one way or another.  So  the question you have to ask yourself is whether this particular review service is worth $425.  That’s something I can’t answer for you because not only is this your career, only you have the power to decide relative worth. But . . . consider this: we are talking about buying a review, pure and simple, and for a lot of money whether you go for the additional services or not (and presuming you get a review you actually want to use).  That’s on top of what you’ve probably already spent just to produce your book (e-book or print).  We all know that delivering a polished product counts—but does buying a review help?  Is a wise way to spend your limited promotional dollars (remembering that every dollar you spend also reflects the time you spent earning it)?

Put it another way: is a review for which you shelled out money worth as much as one put up by someone who read your book and then, unsolicited, felt impelled to say something (good or bad) about it?

Furthermore, does buying a review from this (or any other) service do what you want: get the word out to your target audience?

Maybe yes.  Maybe no.  Think about it.  Only you know.

Next week: PW Select. 

13 thoughts on “Getting the Word Out: Reviews: Kirkus Indie”

  1. I appreciate your piece on Kirkus. I recently had a bad experience with them. In fact, I don’t believe Kirkus read my novel in its entirety and it still bothers me that I spent the money. After reading the review, I had one major concern. The critic focused solely on the love triangle and my book is not a romance novel. Although, romance plays an important role in book, it essentially is a coming-of-age story centrally focused around a noir whodunit. In fact, the second half of the book’s plot is anchored by an unsolved mystery, only to be intertwined with elements of love, the pursuit of dreams, and self-discovery. It’s also important to note that this is book one of an already-completed series that continues to explore the shadowy backgrounds of the central characters and their intertwined relationships.

    I am not sure if the omission of the mystery in the review qualified as a “factual error,” but it’s important to note that by not mentioning this component, the primary plot of my book (and its subsequent novels) is lost.

    When I followed up with CreateSpace about my issue—they went back to Kirkus with my rebuttal. Kirkus response was not only snarky and condescending but they extended their “sympathies” to me as an author.

    Let me state for the record that I don’t expect everyone who reads my novel to like it. Reading is art and it’s subjective. I just expected Kirkus to actually read my book from start to finish and review it’s entirety not a portion of it. My experience was shoddy and I would recommend an author (whether published traditionally or independently) to NOT spend the money. As a couple of my readers commented when I told them the story, “Who is Kirkus? Never heard of them.” My sentiment exactly.

    Just thought I would share.

  2. Yes, yours is a story I’ve heard from others. In fact, if you’ve got a blog, you ought to post this. I’m sure that your experience–and those of others–has now prompted Kirkus to reassure people that they read a novel in its entirety. But I know writers who are routinely asked to blurb, and I know that many only skim. I can’t imagine that, for a measly $50 or so a book, that a freelance reviewer can afford to read whole novels. But I’m not a pro-freelancer, so what do I know?

    Thanks for sharing this, Sarah. Think about sharing it with others.

  3. Wish I’d read this before I paid for my review. Thank you for the great article. I was wondering about Proconnect and thus found you. Kirkus review of my novel is a 5th grade book report of a romance novel which pretty much leaves out at least 10 layers in the book. Never mind the errors and the fact that this isn’t a romance novel. Sigh. At least I’m done with Kirkus. Thanks. 🙂

  4. Hi,
    I really enjoyed your article and wanted to give you my point of view as a self-pubbed author. Kirkus is overpriced and not worth it. When you decide to publish outside of the industry, you should stick with your original intention to bypass the industry. Seeking out a Kirkus Review, is looking for industry validation. Is that why you write?

  5. Not sure what you mean. If you’re referring to industry validation, that’s not why I write, but I’d be lying if I said that industry validation doesn’t matter. Reviews matter, period, whether they’re part of an established industry or word-of-mouth. For me, it’s got nothing to do with the industry; it’s got to do with reaching the greatest number of people who might be influenced by what they read about a book.

  6. I submitted my first book ‘The D Word’ to Kirkus and got a terrible review. It was clear they hadn’t read the book – just skim read it and there were errors in what they said. I complained. They read it again and gave me a glowing review. It’s going to be featured in their Christmas newsletter.

    I think it is good to have a review if you want to then send the review with a manuscript to a traditional publisher. It’s extra credence but on its own don’t bother. A lot of money and it will disappear on the internet

  7. I hope you don’t mind if I chime in.
    If you want an honest review “Indie Reader” is the best. It may be brutal however it’s worth the money which is half the price.

    Indie Reader reviewed my debut novel “The Peacemaker” and they gave it 2 stars. The best 2 stars I ever read. They compared it to a classic novel and said it was a clumsily executed afternoon Tv special… Lol. “A Tv special” how cool is that”

    I recently had a (so/so) experience with Kirkus for my sophomore book. I figured I’d try someone new. After I paid the $475. They emailed and said I needed to spend any additional 50. So they could read the first book to know what my sequel was about. They also added on an extra couple of weeks.

    Well XMas eve I opened the review… I actually let my husband open it because I couldn’t catch my breath. I was so excited as he read it because they said all good things about it.

    When I read it I noticed they started the review with my first book. Well.. Well .. Well.., they had many errors and it was obvious that they hadn’t read the book that they charged me an extra $50 for.

    When I brought it to there attention, they corrected the errors and admitted to not reading the first book. I Asked for a refund. They said “sorry it’s against our policy” ” sigh”

    I still like the review however “Indie Reader Reviews” are much more detailed and savory.

    I’m still contemplating contacting my credit card company for my 50. It’s the principal.

    Thanks for letting me vent?
    T.L. Criswell

  8. Absolutely no problem, Tiffany; vent away. Your comments about Kirkus don’t surprise me in the slightest (others have told me the same thing), so you should definitely retrieve your cash. You didn’t receive the service for which you paid, simple as that. (I’ve also heard, though, that reviewing for Kirkus is brutal, thankless, not terribly remunerative work.)
    Thanks, too, for your comments on Indie Reader; might be worth a look-see.

  9. Interesting and useful piece. Thanks. Got my Kirkus review today. It was very snarky but there were more than enough blurb-worthy comments to regard it as a success. It does seem as if the guy read it through, and if he only skimmed it he certainly skimmed it effectively. Whether it will pay for itself remains to be seen.

  10. Yup. Snark does seem to be a reviewer’s ken, but think of the workload these guys have. They only get about $50 or so a review and they have SO MANY BOOKS to get through. In some ways, they’re like movie critics: how many bad ones they must wade through to get to a gem.

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